Weekend Preview: South Carolina and USM
• Chad Holbrook, South Carolina not deterred — by Kendall Rogers
• Surge Has Southern Miss in Postseason Mix — by Aaron Fitt
Tumultuous Season Doesn’t Deter Holbrook, Gamecocks
By KENDALL ROGERS
As South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook called it a night last Saturday in College Station, he went up to his hotel room, hoping to get some sleep, something all coaches get very little of this time of year.
But Holbrook couldn’t sleep. The Gamecocks had won the series opener against then top-four Texas A&M to begin a must-win three-game set. And they were in position to win Saturday’s Game Two against the bruising offense of the Aggies, leading 14-12 heading to the bottom of the ninth inning.
But as the Aggies do so well at home, they fought back. And one hit after the other, A&M responded with three runs in the bottom of the inning, with shortstop Blake Allemand smacking a ball into the right-center field gap to win the game 15-14.
South Carolina had a series win over A&M in its grasp … and it simply let things slip away. At that point in time, that was clearly the story of the Gamecocks’ season to-date. This team had shown some glimpses, but when it mattered most, the big hits and pitches weren’t there, and Holbrook’s team couldn’t get over the hump.
So, he tossed and turned the rest of the night.
“I lost a lot of sleep that night, wondering if my team could come to the ballpark with the right frame of mind. That was a tough loss, and those guys can just really, really hit,” Holbrook said. “I was wondering if my team would be fighters in the series finale, if they’d respond.
“With the year like we’ve had, sometimes you can lose that will to win when you lose a game like that,” he continued. “But our guys didn’t. They came back on Sunday in the right frame of mind, and we competed all over the place. That really showed the character of my team. Hopefully that win is something that will give us confidence the rest of the way.”
As the Gamecocks kept their postseason hopes alive against the Aggies with an 8-7 victory in the series finale, it capped off easily the most impressive weekend of the season for this club. The Gamecocks pummeled Texas A&M’s pitching staff for over 30 runs in three games, and imposing first baseman Kyle Martin capped off a huge series with a 3-for-5 performance, along with yet another home run in the finale.
The contributions from this offense that weekend were aplenty. Elliott Caldwell had some big hits, Max Schrock and Alex Destino did some serious damage, and the combination of Marcus Mooney and Clark Scolamiero and others also helped the Gamecocks grab the series.
South Carolina entered the A&M series hitting .240 in Southeastern Conference play. But after that series? The Gamecocks upped their batting average to .254. Additionally, in their last four games, including a midweek demolition of USC-Upstate, the Gamecocks are hitting .376 with a team OBP of .459.
It could be too late for this team. We’ve said all along the Gamecocks needed to take the A&M and LSU series to get into the postseason. And, well, taking care of business against the Tigers this weekend is an incredibly difficult chore that will take everything clicking on all cylinders, even more so than they did against A&M last weekend.
“I think our confidence is up a little bit. When you go to a place like A&M, where the ball is flying out against that bruising of a lineup, and you win, you feel pretty good about yourselves,” he said. “Collectively as an offense, we’re getting good performances from pretty much everyone in the lineup, and that wasn’t happening earlier in the year.
“We’ve had a lot of things go wrong this year, but now we’ve got more opportunities ahead of us,” he continued. “We just have to take advantage of those chances.”
If that A&M series told us something, that’s no matter what, expect the Gamecocks to give every ounce they have.
Winning at a program like South Carolina can be very rewarding. The fans in Columbia love their Gamecocks, and the baseball fan base is massive, making it quite the spectacle when there’s a big series at Carolina Stadium.
But it also comes with some negatives, something found at every major program out there — not just South Carolina.
As the Gamecocks dropped a home series to Auburn three weekends ago, their regional hopes seemed to be gone. The Gamecocks were 10-14, had a horrible RPI and their resume was extremely unimpressive. And yes, they had a series at perceived juggernaut Texas A&M on the docket.
Knowing those things, some South Carolina fans littered my inbox and twitter feeds with questions about Holbrook’s future. “Should South Carolina make a coaching change?”, one email said. And though plenty of correspondence didn’t necessarily call for that drastic of a change, there was a sense of dismay, and a strong feeling that perhaps the program wasn’t headed the right direction.
There are two things to be said here, though. First, this spring has surely been a disappointment for the Gamecocks. In Holbrook’s first two seasons, the Garnet and Black went 43-20 and reached a super regional, and last season, the Gamecocks went 44-18, which is very good, but were unable to advance to a super regional after a surprisingly bad loss to Maryland in the Columbia Regional title game.
Fast forward to where the Gamecocks stand right now, and you’re talking about a program that’s 56 in the latest RPI and tied for ninth in the SEC standings.
Uncharted waters? Yes. Is it a trend yet? Absolutely not.
“We’ve had a tough stretch, there’s no doubt about that. But all programs go through stretches, and we’re engaged, and we’re trying to find ways to fight through it,” Holbrook said. “It’s been very difficult, because as a coach I’ve been spending much of the season trying to figure out which right buttons to push.
“I’ll say this, this season has been a learning experience either way,” he continued. “This season will make me a better coach and leader. I’ve seen some different perspectives this season and it’s been a long time since I’ve been a part of a stretch like this. We just have to fight our way through it. We love the players in this program and we feel like the future is bright.”
As the Gamecocks lost premier sophomore righthander Wil Crowe to an injury earlier this year, and have sputtered much of the season, Holbrook has received advice and kind words from many coaches around the country, but most interesting? Holbrook’s most ardent confidant has been South Carolina athletic director and former head coach Ray Tanner.
“I’ve leaned a lot on Ray, no doubt. If not for him, I’m not sure I would’ve kept my sanity,” Holbrook jokingly said. “He knows how difficult it can be in this league, and how there’s a fine line between winning and losing. I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without him, and having his wisdom was very helpful.”
The Gamecocks aren’t dead yet in 2015. Take the LSU series and there’s a very good chance they’re back in the postseason, where we’ve learned anything can happen.
But even if the Gamecocks are unable to best LSU this weekend or make a splash in the SEC tournament to get into the field of 64, this program is still not trending sharply downward. The Gamecocks will lose first baseman Kyle Martin next season, but will welcome back plenty of talented cogs, including, of course, Crowe. They also have signed the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class and have the nation’s No. 1 class committed for 2016, per the recruiting rankings from Perfect Game.
Time will tell what fate Holbrook and the Gamecocks face moving forward. But they showed us something in College Station last weekend, and they’ve given themselves a chance.
After the way this season has transpired, that’s all you can ask for.
“Do I expect to be in Omaha in the near future? You bet,” Holbrook said. “I think we’re in a very very good spot, especially fro a recruiting perspective and with the young players we have. We’ve gone through a tough stretch, but we’re going to be headed the right direction. I truly believe that.”
Late Surge Puts Southern Miss In Postseason Mix
by AARON FITT
In the fall of 2011, Southern Miss was riding a nine-year streak of making the NCAA tournament, and it was just two years removed from the College World Series. That fall, the Golden Eagles capitalized on their momentum by bringing in the most decorated recruiting class in school history. Led by unsigned third-round pick Connor Barron and talented two-way players Mason Robbins and Bradley Roney, that class ranked third in the nation in Baseball America’s ranking of the recruiting classes that showed up on campus that fall.
That ballyhooed recruiting class never lived up to the soaring expectations, as injuries and underperformance caused USM to miss regionals in 2012, 2013 and 2014. But it’s not too late for a handful of seniors from that 2011 class to grab a measure of redemption, and for a younger group of gritty Golden Eagles to lead the program back into the NCAA tournament.
“For nine straight years, our players, our coaching staff, our fans, got that opportunity to extend the season with 63 other teams with hopes of being one of eight there in Omaha. It would be everything (to make it back to regionals),” Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said. “I’ve got players in place that have worked very hard to try to get there. When they leave here, I want those that return to have that taste in their mouths of what it’s like, what it takes to get back there. We need to get that taste back in our mouths that we had for so long here at Southern Miss.”
Early in the season, it looked like Southern Mississippi’s regional drought was sure to reach four years. The Eagles started the season 7-6-1, capped by a series loss to Oakland (which was 0-8 entering that weekend and is 10-35 now). If not for that series, Southern Miss would likely be breathing a little easier right now.
Instead, the Eagles had to fight and claw their way back into the at-large picture. They didn’t seem like a legitimate contender as recently as April 25, when they lost the first two games of a series at UTSA to fall to 22-16-1 overall, 9-10 in C-USA, and No. 85 in the RPI.
But Southern Miss hasn’t lost a game since, reeling off 10 straight wins to climb to 16-10 in C-USA (a half-game out of third place) and No. 58 in the RPI. This week, we included the Eagles in our field of 64 projection for the first time all season. It comes down to this: If Southern Miss can win its final series at second-place Middle Tennessee State this weekend, it has a strong chance to put itself in at-large position. And it can further improve its case with a nice showing in the conference tournament — which it hosts.
A group of holdovers from that 2011 recruiting class have played important roles in USM’s surge. Lefthander Cody Livingston has worked his way back from Tommy John surgery to carve out a role in the bullpen, alongside fellow lefty Luke Lowery. And Barron has become a nice player as a senior, finding a home in center field and in the leadoff spot. He’s hitting .294/.399/.465 with seven home runs and 12 stolen bases. Berry points out that Barron was never able to stay healthy at Southern Miss until midway through his junior year; a torn labrum his freshman year set him back significantly. But he finally got healthy last year, then had a breakout summer in the Texas Collegiate League, where he was the MVP.
“He just came back from that summer with all kinds of confidence in the fall, not only at the plate but stealing bases,” Berry said. “His whole game just kind of jumped forward, like we would have liked to see from him earlier, but those injuries have held him back … Being able to fail and learn from it, I think that’s the biggest key. We all know we’re going to fail, but are we going to learn from those failures? Some of them do, some of them don’t.”
There are other Southern Miss veterans that have been through plenty of failures and come out on the other side. Fifth-year seniors James McMahon, Michael Sterling and Austin Roussel endured the program’s down years, and now they are key pieces of USM’s success. Roussel, the catcher, and Sterling, the shortstop, are two anchors for a Southern Miss defense that is one of the team’s biggest strengths.
“We’ve had some good shortstops, but Sterling ranks up there with them,” Berry said. “Gol-ly. He’s played (Brian) Dozier-like defense, he’s just been outstanding. He’s a fifth-year senior, and honestly, it’s taken that fifth year to bring that out of him, but it’s come out of him. He anchors that middle; he and (second baseman Nick) Dawson complement each other so well in the middle.”
McMahon is one of this team’s greatest stories. He did not make a start in his first three seasons at Southern Miss, posting a 6.04 career ERA in 37 relief appearances heading into this spring. This year, he has found a home in the Sunday starter spot, going 10-1, 1.73 in 78 innings over 13 starts. He attacks hitters with a power sinker that can reach 90-92 mph and a hard slider at 83-84, and he gets plenty of groundball outs, playing into the strength of the defense.
“He’s just dripping with confidence and presence when he takes the mound,” Berry said. “It’s a really neat story. I always wanted him to be a closer, because he has a really good arm. I wanted his personality to be more dominating on the mound, wanted him to prepare for that sprint more than the marathon. But his personality is that marathon type of guy. That’s exactly the way he paces himself on the mound, working his own tempo, running his own race. It’s almost been flawless.”
The Southern Miss pitching staff, which has a 3.05 ERA, features good depth, with a lot of different looks from both sides and several quality power arms. Fourth-year junior righthander Cody Carroll, another member of that famous 2011 class, brings outstanding stuff to the Friday starter role and has had a solid season, going 4-4, 3.01 in 13 starts. Berry said he sits 91-92 and has run his fastball up to 95 this year, mixing in a slurve and a changeup. Both Carroll and McMahon are coming off dominant performances last weekend, combining for 13.2 innings of shutout ball and allowing just five total hits.
The Golden Eagles have more quality veterans in the bullpen, along with Livingston and Lowery. Senior Ryan Milton (a junior-college transfer in the summer of 2013) leads the team with nine saves and features a heavy low-90s fastball and a hard, late cutter. Berry said his Iron Mike delivery seems to make his ball get on top of hitters quicker than they expect. Another senior, the crafty righty Christian Talley, served as the team’s Friday starter last year after arriving from junior college, but he struggled to repeat his success as a starter this year, so he has found a home in the bullpen.
In Talley’s place, true freshman lefthander Kirk McCarty (4-1, 3.47) has taken over a weekend rotation spot and done a good job. A star quarterback for the football team at Hattiesburg’s Oak Grove High, McCarty has a quarterback’s presence and intelligence on the mound, which helps his 87-90 fastball and solid curveball play up. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but his advanced feel for pitching makes him very tough.
This may be a veteran team, but freshmen McCarty and Taylor Braley have made a big impact, leading the program’s next wave. The 5-foot-11, 252-pound Braley was a high school teammate of McCarty in both baseball and football, where he played defensive tackle. Berry said he would go watch Oak Grove football games just to marvel at Braley’s work in the trenches — which made him believe Braley had the toughness to be a good player early on at Southern Miss.
“Watching him in high school, it didn’t matter if he was on the mound, at the plate, in the field, he was one of those guys who just dominated,” Berry said. “Football, he was a defensive tackle, and he was undersized, but it didn’t matter, he’d dominate them. They’d have to double team him. He’s a lot like a Kevin Youkilis, just kind of a weird baseball body — he’s just like a refridgerator, just a short block. When he played football, he’d whip dudes’ ass. When you’d talk to him, he’d say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get it done, I can tell.’ ”
In the second half, Braley has taken over the third base job and hit in the 3-hole, ranking second on the team in batting (.309). Another newcomer, junior-college transfer Chase Scott, started out at third base and made some errors but has learned to play left field, a position he’d never played before. Scott has also made a difference for this team, hitting .304 with a team-best 12 doubles in the cleanup spot.
Junior first baseman Tim Lynch (.333/.419/.560, 9 HR, 31 RBI — all team bests) has been a menace in the 5-hole, and senior DH Matt Durst (.306/.342/.457, 5 HR) gives the lineup one more dangerous run producer in the 6-hole. Lynch, who hit .256 with one homer last year, is one of several Eagles who have taken a huge leap forward this season, changing the complexion of this lineup.
“It’s just hard work. He started as a true freshman for us, has matured. It’s his understanding of the game, understanding of his swing,” Berry said of Lynch. “His defense has continued to improve each year because his body has improved. He’s worked extremely hard in the weight room. He’s basically made himself into a very, very nice baseball player.”
The same can be said for a bunch of Southern Miss veterans. It’s been a long road, but this team is having fun and playing well when it matters most.